And the final blow? Mo was delivering Tupperwared meals to his house like some cross between a Welcome Wagon and Marie Callender. He tried to pay for it, and she refused to take his money. She considered it some sort of outreach program. I think the point was reaching out to drive me crazy.
“Let me get this straight,” I’d hissed at her over the phone. “I say don’t have anything to do with the nosy outsider, and you start delivering care packages to his door? I can’t get your meat loaf in my freezer, but you’re dropping them on Thatcher’s doorstep with reheating instructions?”
“I saw him at the market the other day, and the poor guy had twenty Banquet dinners in his cart,” Mo said, her voice rising to a disturbing, defensive octave. “Do you have any idea how expensive those things are up here? Plus, they’re all fat and sodium, and he’s too pretty to be allowed to get all bloated.”
“But I told you—”
“Look, with all the questions Nick is not so subtly trying to work into conversations, it would look weird and suspicious if I went all silent religious-compound wife whenever he walked into a room. Doesn’t it make more sense that we would remain neighborly?”
There was silence on my end of the line . . . unless you counted the sound of my teeth grinding.
“I’m trying to find a hole in your argument that doesn’t involve me threatening you,” I grumbled. “I got nothing.”
“What sort of questions is he asking?”
“Oh, little things, about how Cooper and I got to know each other. He heard from a few of our neighbors that we weren’t exactly an instant love connection. Some of my better insults are fondly remembered. So he’s using ‘getting to know you’ conversations to ask what turned the tide, what couples around here do to date, that sort of thing.”
“And what are you telling him?” I asked.
Mo huffed. “Oh, I told him that Cooper showed up on my doorstep with a bear trap clamped around his leg, told me he was a werewolf, and we decided to go steady.”
“Ha freaking ha.”
My sister-in-law was not to be trusted.
My embarrassment was replaced by annoyance, frustration, a desire to be rid of Nick that bordered on religious. It was obvious that he had been sent to torment me for some horrible wrong I’d committed in a past life.
I failed to see how turning me into a blithering, sleep-deprived idiot was going to make me a better person. As a concept, karma was ass-backward.
“Oh, good gravy, snap out of it, you loser!” I groaned, thunking my head against the desk.
“Well, that seems harsh. I just walked in the door,” a voice boomed over me. I looked up to see Samson towering over my desk.
I snickered, leaning back in my chair.
“Now, what kind of werewolf doesn’t even notice when her office has been invaded?” Samson smirked, ruffling my hair. “What’s up, Midget?”
My cousin Samson, ladies and gentlemen, the five-year-old trapped in a pro wrestler’s body, the man who gave me the Chuck Norris Fact of the Day calendar on my desk, which was why I tolerated abuse from him more than I would from most people. I loved him just as much as I loved Cooper. His mother had died before I was born, and his dad was a screwup of the first order, abandoning him to live with us when we were just kids. He’d been the one who helped keep me somewhat in line when Cooper left, and as my unofficial second in command, he was the first member of the pack to call me out when I was being a jerk.
Well, the first to call me a jerk to my face and walk away without a limp . . . ok, without a permanent limp.
He walked it off.
I scowled up at him, but there was no real heat in it. “Everyone’s a midget compared to you.”
“Doesn’t make the nickname any less fun.”
“You know, the ink isn’t even dry on this yet,” I retorted, pointing to his paycheck.
“It’s not signed, either,” he noted. “You only think I don’t pick up on stuff like that.”
“Go on, you’ve claimed your thirty pieces of silver, go do something crazy like put gas in that penis replacement you call transportation.”
“First of all, don’t mock the truck or my junk,” he said sternly, pointing out the window toward the mammoth F-250 required to haul his ass around. “And it’s not compensating for anything if it’s to scale.”
“Ew.” I shuddered but was grateful for something to think about that did not involve hot outsider eggheads. I was still shuddering in revulsion when a sandy-haired werewolf stuck his head in the door, toting a jam-packed postal box.
Clay Renard was one of a handful of people in the valley not related to me by blood or marriage. In fact, that handful was pretty much limited to Clay, his widowed sister, Alicia, and her two boys. Clay was a few years younger than me. He was a likable, easygoing sort of guy, friendly and helpful, without being a pain in the ass about it. He was as close to the all-American type as werewolves got, with a strong, square jaw, high, sharp cheekbones, and light blue eyes. Even though his hair was brownish-gold, he had dark eyebrows that served as exclamation points on his open, expressive face. I liked the way they tilted when he smiled. And he had a cute little overbite that caught his bottom lip when he tucked the smile away.
“Hey, Clay, what are you doing with the mail?” I asked, grinning at him.
Clay shrugged. “Samson was pressed for time, so I stopped by the Grundy post office to pick up the mail for him.”
I frowned. Clay worked in a garage on the outskirts of Grundy. But the errand still meant he had to drive twenty minutes out of his way to do something Samson was supposed to do three times a week.
“Oh, you did, did you?” I narrowed my eyes at my cousin. “You were pressed for time? Would that be nap time?” Samson shrugged. “I’m giving Clay half of your paycheck.”
“I knew I should have made you sign it,” Samson muttered.
Clay chuckled. “I don’t mind. I got to stop by the saloon for one of Mo’s burgers.”
“Aw, why’d you have to go and mention Mo’s burgers?” Samson moaned.
“Oh, cheer up, buttercup, Mom made chicken and dumplings,” I told him.
“Meh,” Samson said in a disinterested tone.
“You’re going to be in soooo much trouble when I tell Mom you said that.” I laughed. Samson cringed. “Clay, are you too full to join us?”
“I am never too full for anything,” Clay said solemnly.
“I’ll call Mom, let her know you’re coming,” I told him. I turned to my cousin. “You, on the other hand, have some mail to deliver. Jackass.”
“I’ll give you a hand,” Clay said, following a grumbling Samson out the door.
“Suck-up,” Samson shot back.
I was in a much brighter mood as I finished up a few housekeeping tasks and closed down my computer. I called my mom to warn her we’d be having a guest for dinner, but she didn’t pick up, which was weird. But Mom always cooked enough to feed an army with Samson around, so I figured we were covered.
I left my office without bothering to lock it. I mean, seriously, there were sixty people in the village, and they had just as much business going into the building as I did. That was the benefit of being related to nearly everyone you lived with. There was a certain level of trust that was expected. As I walked the whopping half-block to my house, I congratulated myself on finding a pleasant evening’s distraction from plotting the violent demise of one Nicholas Thatcher.
Clay and I had been on a few friendly outings that didn’t quite qualify as dates. I’d taken him hiking up the north pass, near the elk hunting grounds. We’d gone to see a movie, some date-appropriate Will Ferrell comedy we’d abandoned halfway through in favor of the action flick two theaters down. As a candidate, he was far less complicated than . . . other people, but he was a cautious soul, which I respected.
Besides Clay, I’d gone on a fix-up or two with boys from other packs in Olympia and Anchorage. It always had this weird game-show feel to it. The grand prize being “lifelong mated bliss and a half-dozen purebred werewolf pups.” And then I realized that the reason these guys needed to be fixed up by the interpack dating service wasn’t the scarcity of female candidates but the fact that they were obnoxious, stupid, or creepy—or all of the above.
Every once in a while, I thought an entrepreneurial were should set up some sort of online supernatural dating service. But, you know, that is the sort of thing that attracts attention. Some smartass little hacker would get into it, and next thing you know, there’d be a complete list of supernatural creatures in America, and some nut job might take it seriously and go Van Helsing on our asses.
I spotted Clay’s truck in my great-aunt Billie’s driveway and decided to duck in to tell Alicia that her brother would be at our place for dinner. I took a few deep breaths before I knocked. Visiting Billie was always sort of awkward. Besides being a murderous, back-stabbing traitor, her son, my alpha predecessor, Eli, had also been the primary caretaker for Billie. Between setting us up for a takeover with another pack, attacking humans at random to drive Cooper away, and trying to kill Mo, I honestly don’t know how he found time for it all.
Billie had dementia, a rare affliction among werewolves, and it had wiped her once-sharp mind like a slate. She needed almost constant care to keep her from phasing and running away. The last time she did this, she was found wandering naked in human form at the grocery store in Grundy.
The pack didn’t hold a grudge against Billie for her son’s actions. As the mate of my grandfather’s late brother, James, she would always be considered one of us. And while the rest of the pack was more than willing to take over her care, it seemed right when Clay and Alicia, Billie’s niece and nephew, left their pack in Ontario a few months before to move in with her. They were a welcome addition to the group; they were smart and hardworking, and they could hunt like nobody’s business.
Still, considering that it was Cooper who brought Eli down, with my help, I always felt little twinges of guilt when talking to Billie, even though she probably had no idea that Eli was gone.
I knocked a little harder on the front door, but there was no answer. Nudging it open, I could hear a cartoon blaring from the living room. Someone was moving around in the kitchen. “Hello?” I called.
Paul, Alicia’s youngest, toddled up to me. His four-year-old brother, Ronnie, sat mesmerized by dancing animated bears. The boys didn’t resemble Alicia or Clay with their white-blond hair and huge brown eyes. But they were adorable. Sort of sticky and always had runny noses, but adorable. “Up!” Paul commanded, tugging on my jeans. I slid my hands under his arms and hoisted him onto my hip as I walked into the kitchen.
“Nana?” he said, his tone hopeful as he eyed the fruit bowl on the counter.
Billie was in a rumpled blue and green plaid housedress, her thick white hair tumbling around her face. She was shuffling back and forth between the cabinet and her counter, spreading peanut butter on six slices of bread. I peeled a banana for Paul, which he promptly devoured.
“Aunt Billie?” I murmured quietly.
She turned, her deep brown eyes focused and alert but vacant. Whatever she was seeing, it wasn’t what I was seeing. She smiled, her still-smooth cheeks dimpling prettily.
“Oh, Maggie, honey, have you seen Eli?” Billie asked, topping each of her half-dozen sandwiches. “You need to tell him it’s time for lunch. He can go out and play with Samson and Cooper later.”
I swallowed the little lump in my throat and nodded. “OK, Aunt Billie, I’ll tell him.”
“I’m cutting the crusts off for him,” she said, adding the sandwiches to a massive pile on the counter. I found myself blinking back against hot, wet pressure in my eyes. Sure, Eli had turned out kind of evil, but he was still my cousin. I’d grown up with him. I could remember the afternoons that had trapped Billie’s mind. I could remember him as a little boy, arguing with Cooper and Samson over who had to be Aquaman when they played Justice League. And I’d taken a part in killing that little boy. It was a weight on my heart that wouldn’t go away.